A Northwestern upset of Ohio State on October 5 in Evanston helps set the stage for a rematch in the conference championship game where the Buckeyes get a 0.57-point advantage to clinch the title and ruin the Wildcats' BCS Championship run. Ohio State advances to the Rose Bowl, but could be out of the national title picture at that point due to undefeated teams from at least two other conferences.
This is the first time in the 21-year history of the Congrove Computer Rankings that the Wildcats have been projected to lose less than 3 games. During that period, the 1995 team was picked to go 2-9 before it surprised everyone and turned in a 10-1 campaign to claim its first outright Big Ten title since 1936. The next season (1996), the rankings said Northwestern would go 7-4 but finished 9-2 and shared the title with Ohio State. In 2000, a projected 3-8 team went 8-3 (6-2 in conference) and tied with Michigan and Purdue for the conference crown.
Ohio State is off probation and on a mission after running the table last year and having no place to celebrate. Urban Meyer has yet to lose a ballgame as the head coach in Columbus.
Around the league, only a pair of teams have new head coaches. Gary Andersen moves from Utah State to Wisconsin in the wake of Brett Beilema's surprising departure to Arkansas. Meanwhile, Darrell Hazell left Kent State to take the reigns at Purdue after Danny Hope was dismissed.
Both coaches seem to be particularly great finds. Under Andersen, Utah State was 11-2 last year on the heels of a 7-6 campaign in 2011. Those teams combined to give the Aggies their first consecutive winning seasons since 1979 and 1980 under Bruce Snyder. And Hazell hails from the MAC, the "Cradle of Coaches", where he last year steered Kent State within a double-overtime conference title game loss of claiming its first conference title since 1972.
The Badgers should be a factor once again in the Leaders division, even with a new head coach in Madison. The bottom half figures to be extremely weak with Indiana, Purdue and Illinois forecasted to win a total of 9 games between them and only 4 conference matches. Obviously, that means Hazell will likely have a much bigger task ahead of him than Andersen.
Penn State will continue to be a wild card in the mix as it enters the second year of a 4-year probation period stemming from the horrible Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case and subsequent cover-up. Because of that probation, Wisconsin is a virtual lock to wind up in the official top two of the division, but that doesn't mean Penn State can't play spoiler. Bill O'Brien received my vote as Coach of the Year last season for managing to steer PSU to an 8-4 record after beginning the campaign with losses to Ohio University at home and a Virginia squad on the road that would finish 4-8.
In the Legends division, Michigan State is the computer's top pick to challenge Northwestern with an 8.17-point at the Wildcats being the difference maker. The Congrove rankings put Michigan in a distant 3rd with a 4-4 mark in Big Ten play and a disappointing 7-5 record overall. Minnesota is forecasted to become bowl eligible for a second straight season, but limp home with a 6-6 mark after a 4-1 start. The backend of the Gopher schedule is a grueling gauntlet with visits to Michigan, Northwestern, Indiana and Michigan State, and home games against Penn State and Wisconsin. The two wins could be tough to come by, too, as those are projected home wins by just 0.55 vs. the Hoosiers and a questionable 0.26-point edge vs. Nebraska.
Speaking of the 'Huskers, a forecasted 5th-place finish - behind Minnesota - goes sharply against the grain of almost every other preseason forecast, many of which have them winning the division. The computer only gives Nebraska a 3-5 conference mark with the losses coming in succession to Minnesota (away) by 0.26, Northwestern (home) by 5.75, Michigan (away) by 4.28, Michigan State (home) by 0.58, and Penn State (away) by 3.80.